Lafayette educators being surveyed on potential budget cuts

Lafayette educators being surveyed on where costs can be cut

The people most impacted by the financial decisions the Lafayette Parish School Board must make could help the board determine how to balance a nearly $23.5 million budget gap.

On Monday, the district sent out an online survey seeking employees’ input on positions and programs that could be on the chopping block.

The district faces its steepest shortfall in balancing its $272 million general fund, which includes instructional costs and operations. The board began its general fund talks in May, and a majority of board members have stood their ground in rejecting repeated recommendations from Superintendent Pat Cooper and staff that the board consider dipping into the $68 million reserve fund and paying for some salaries with a 2002 sales tax fund dedicated to boosting teacher pay.

Cooper has warned that not using the two funding sources would mean significant cuts in jobs and programs. Meanwhile, a majority of board members have held out for a balanced budget that doesn’t require chipping away at the money it has set aside over the years for financial security. School district finances are forecast to get tougher as charter schools begin to open in August and are expected to grow over the next few years. This year, about $12 million in state per-pupil funding is expected to follow Lafayette Parish students who plan to enroll in the charter schools.

The surveys are due by 5 p.m. Wednesday, and the expectation is the results will be shared with the board when it meets Thursday to continue budget talks.

Cooper said the survey is designed to capture educators’ views as the board makes budget decisions.

“I want to make sure the teachers’ thoughts on what they value or don’t value comes through clearly,” Cooper said.

The survey went out to classroom teachers, speech therapists, librarians, social workers, counselors, physical therapists, psychologists, assessment teachers, audiologists, occupational therapists and ROTC instructors.

The survey has eight statements to which respondents will answer on a scale of 1 (strongly disagree) to 5 (strongly agree). The statements are related to the impact that certain programs, educators and support staff have on student learning. Positions and programs most at risk from potential budget cuts include instructional strategists, alternative education teachers, alternative education classrooms, social workers, nurses and guidance counselors.

Another option discussed to balance the budget is to increase student-teacher ratios. Current ratios are: 23 to 1 from kindergarten to third grade; 25 to 1 in fourth grade; and 28 to 1 in grades five through 12.

The survey poses two scenarios, asking whether employees agree with this statement: “Adding (two) additional students to my classroom will disrupt instruction and students’ learning.” The statement is repeated to gauge the perceived impact of adding three students.

The last statement on the survey touches on an area a majority of School Board members have protected over recent years — the 2002 sales tax fund. The fund has been used to lower class sizes, but the board has rejected prior staff recommendations to cover some salaries from the sales tax account. Each year, revenue left over in the account is disbursed to teachers and other certified personnel, such as counselors and librarians, in a supplemental check. Last year, that came to about $2,200 per employee. Paying for positions, such as instructional strategists or classroom positions, from the account would mean less money in that annual extra check.

The survey statement is trying to gauge how willing employees are to let go of some of that extra cash.

The statement is presented this way: “To maintain the progress my school is making, I would be willing to receive a lesser amount on the ‘14th check’ funded by excess 2002 Sales Tax Fund.”

For those who indicate they agree or strongly agree, they’re asked to indicate just how much of a reduction they’d be willing to consider receiving in that extra check: 100 percent, 75 percent, 50 percent, 30 percent or 10 percent.

Cooper said the survey items were presented in a way to “make sure teachers knew what they were trading in the schools versus their bonus excess checks.”

The district had some professional help with the survey, said Angela Morrison, the school district’s director of community collaborations and partnerships. Lise Anne Slatten, an assistant professor of management at University of Louisiana at Lafayette’s Moody College of Business Administration, donated her expertise to help draft the survey to ensure its credibility, Morrison said.

“We did not want to present leading questions,” Morrison said. “We wanted our teachers to give their responses based on statements that could inform budget-making decisions.”

It’s not the first time the district has asked teachers for their input. Last year, as the district faced a $12 million shortfall, district staff created an online suggestion box for employees to offer recommendations on where the district should make the cuts. Slowly, that shortfall closed to $4 million and was eventually balanced in part by shifting money budgeted for school projects into the general fund and more cuts to the central office.

In 2010, instructional employees were asked to select budget scenarios they preferred when the district had a nearly $15 million shortfall. That year, teachers faced the possibility of two, three or four more students in their classrooms as a means to help bridge the budget gap. In 2010, a majority of employees selected an option of increasing student-teacher ratios by two students and also supported cuts such as reducing money available for principals to request additional staff, for special programs for troubled students and for a team-teaching concept in middle schools. That year, class sizes were increased, and the board used about $5 million from its rainy day fund.

Follow Marsha Sills on Twitter, @Marsha_Sills.